Tony Basques



Previous chapter: Family history

A photo of me when I was 1
Me as a baby

I was born in San Francisco, California on October 13th, 1931 at St. Luke's Hospital. It was in the Mission District. I remember it was near a Sears and Roebuck. There was nothing spectacular about the hospital.

The exterior of the hospital
St. Luke's hospital (Image credit: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

The first place I lived was 1035 Capitol Avenue in San Francisco in the Ingleside district. It was my mom, my dad, and me. My sister, Barbara, wasn't born yet. It was a home we rented from Mr. Nolan, who lived downstairs. He was born in Santa Helena. Mr. Nolan was the landlord of Grandpa's grocery store, which he had on the corner of Farragut and Capitol. We had rooms in the back of the grocery store. I think we lived there. Mr. Nolan looked like Santa Claus without a beard. A big man. He was very scholarly. I regret not knowing what he did for work. He took a liking to us, the family. He was kind of an overseer. He would stop by the store everyday to make sure everything was OK. He was very kind, very kind. My earliest memory was being in the grocery store with Mr. Nolan while he taught me the pledge to the flag. He also taught me a poem called I Am An American Boy.

Another one of my earliest memories. I remember my mother used to sing me to sleep every night. She would sing a song called "Little Man You've Had A Busy Day". Eric Clapton did a wonderful rendition of the song a few years back.

My mom worked in the grocery store with my dad. The store was right across the street from Farragut Elementary School, where I went for a year or two. As you walked into our grocery store, the cash register was on the right, and the shelves were along the perimeter. In those days you had barrels. If you wanted rice, you didn't buy a box of rice. You got a scooper and you scooped out the rice. Or the beans. And for coffee they had this handle like a claw that you would squeeze, and the coffee cans were 10 feet up. I can remember my dad reaching up and using the claw to bring down coffee cans for customers.

The exterior of the school
Farragut elementary school (Image credit: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

Another thing I remember vividly is that during the Depression people rarely spent money. They would sign a book. "I bought $12 worth of groceries." And they would sign their name. My dad had a little case with all the books. The Smiths. The Jones. The Perrys. On payday they would come in and they would pay their bill. Unfortunately during the Depression a lot of people couldn't pay. So my dad just let it ride. He never said, "hey, where's my money?" It wasn't that he was that wealthy. He just knew that they were having a hard time.

I remember being in bed with a cold. Whatever the medicine they were giving me, it was horrible. My mom was out in the store, helping my dad, and I said to myself, "if I'm sick, and this is going to make me better..." So I drank the whole bottle. I got so sick.

Dad was very handy, as everyone in the family knows. He built a playhouse for me in the backyard. The house had a driveway and I could drive my little car. It had an upstairs, a downstairs, a garage with a door --- where I could put my car.

I had little chicks. From Easter, or something. They were running around in the yard, having fun. I hate to mention this but it's a vivid memory. There was a dog next door. Unfortunately the dog found a way to get under the fence and... "borrow" some of the chicks. I saw the aftermath and I ran in the house screaming and crying. The people who owned the dog came in the shop later that day to apologize. I went out into the store with a knife in my hand. I was going to kill the man! I was feisty and I was mad at the dog. My mom scolded me for that one.

Eventually my dad closed the grocery store and decided to open a candy store. There were steps by the candy store. By this time my sister, Barbara, had been born. She had a dog. The dog fell down the steps and broke its leg. At that time if a dog broke its leg you would put it down. Barbara would have nothing to do with that. She raised Cain. So my dad took the dog to some vet --- which is amazing, considering how frugal he was --- and they had to remove the dog's leg to save it. I have a vivid picture of that three-legged dog running up and down the steps. As normal as could be.

An early friend of mine was Chester Norris. He taught me how to ride his bike. It was a big bike! He was probably 5 or 6 years older but he took an interest in me and we were compatible. I don't remember a lot of kids. I had a very good friend, a Chinese boy. His parents had a Chinese laundry. We were very good friends.

I remember a bike I got at Christmas time. It had a kickstand. You could put the bike up on the kickstand and peddle, peddle, peddle. I stayed on that bike for a couple days. Just peddling. Going nowhere.

On my street lived Bob Sinclair who became a very famous 49er. Ironically it ended up that his kids went to Mills High School and I taught them. He was supervisor of San Mateo County. He was a better than average football player. He lived across the street. Alice Tognatti lived on the street too and she eventually became my baseball coach when I played for the Baby Seals. This was a team where all the players had famous fathers who had played professional baseball. Del Young played for the Seals. Tony Lazzari played for the Yankees. Gus Suhr's father played for Pittsburgh. These were their kids.

At Halloween we wore masks. Halloween back then was kinda bedlam. It was how I'd picture New Orleans, with people all over the place. I can remember I was with a group of guys. I don't even remember their names. We got a bag, went to the butcher shop and got turkey legs --- just the legs --- stuffed the bag with paper, tied the legs so that the legs were sticking out, tied the bag to a string, and then we'd put it in the middle of an intersection. When a guy got out of his car to pick the bag up we'd pull the string and he'd see this bag of turkey legs running away.

I remember going to a restaurant near the El Rey Theater with my mom and dad and I guess Barbara. In those days when you went to dinner you'd leave a tip under the dish. I remember sitting and looking under the dish and seeing a fifty cent piece. So I put it in my pocket and by the time we got to the car I showed my dad. He asks, "where'd you get that?" I said it was on the table. He took it from me and brought it back into the restaurant. I didn't know. I thought it was free money.

The exterior of the theater
El Rey theater, 1942 (Image credit: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

I would read the Baseball Digest voraciously. I could give you everyone's batting average, where they were born. I also read books like Tom Sawyer. Huckleberry Finn. Not the Hardy Boys, I didn't do any of that. But I liked to read.

Every summer my dad would take me on a train from Oakland and we would go to Sacramento. I would spend maybe 2 or 3 weeks with my uncle Manuel and his family. My cousin Gloria. Manuel Junior, Manny. That would be my cousin. He was maybe 2 years older than I was. Gloria was a year older than her brother. And my aunt Billy. Willamina. I think she was Dutch. It was like being a member of the household.

A group of children looking at a newspaper
My cousins and me (far left, middle row)

We went fishing. We went swimming. We ate well. We enjoyed Sacramento. I caught my first fish in the Sacramento River. It was a catfish, the ugliest fish I've ever seen. My uncle was a great fisherman. He'd slice the catfish and then take some pliers and peel the skin off. The weather in Sacramento was always nice. The evenings, you'd be sitting out on the patio. They would have people visiting. My cousin Manny always had friends over. I still have a BB gun from those years.

My uncle Manuel had an absolute green thumb. He could grow vegetables, fruit, you name it. There was always fresh fruit. Big peaches. Big tomatoes. Later he was a baker. He got up real early in the morning and got home early in the afternoon. Then he'd work in his garden. Their house was on a cul-de-sac. When he retired from the bakery he got permission from the owner of a nearby empty lot to grow vegetables, to grow fruit. He had his own little farmer's market. People would drive up and buy produce from him. He was frugal in many ways, like my dad.

And he had chickens. One time, he was getting a chicken ready for cooking. He got the chicken, chopped its head off, and the chicken got away from him. I have a vivid mental picture of that chicken running around the yard without his head on. Grotesque. Some part of the bird keeps going.

Then my mom and dad decided they would separate. I don't like to say divorced, but I guess they were. I think one of the issues was that my dad was a workaholic. He played music at night, and then worked hard during the day. My mom was a social creature. She liked going out, having fun, dancing. Whenever there was a Christmas or party or special occasion my dad was playing in a band and my mom was home. I had a feeling that was part of it. Plus he was a working fool. Work, work, work. He was a good provider, though. My mom didn't have to work. But they were incompatible. It was just sad.

A photo of Mom and me
Mom and me

After the separation my mom worked as a waitress in a tea shop for a while, and then she decided to make a living as a cosmetologist. She met Lorraine Bush, who was the head of the cosmetology department at the College of San Mateo, and arranged to go to beauty school. Now we had no place to live. Since my mom was going to class everyday, we lived in Lorraine Bush's boarding house. Those were the worst years of my life.

I was probably 8. We were in Most Holy Redeemer Parish in the Castro. I remember that because that's where I made my First Communion. I have a great memory from my First Communion. I was with my mom and a young friend of mine. We're walking up the street, outside the church. We were looking at our certificates of first communion. Something happened. He was making fun of me. A seagull came by and did his poop right on that kid's certificate. I thought, "there's justice!"

A busy intersection with cars, pedestrians, and trolleys
Castro at 17th and Market, 1944 (Image credit: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

The nuns were pretty hard to deal with. Living in the boarding house, Lorraine Bush's brother was an absolute tyrant. Lorraine had 3 or 4 children. She had a mother who was living in the house. Her mother may have been a little slow, but sweet. She did some goofy things. To save water we wouldn't get it really hot. I remember she put me in the bathtub once and it was ice cold. I kept shivering and shivering. Eventually Lorraine walked in and asked, "what's all this about? Oh my god! You have to put some hot water!" I was in a coldwater tub. Freezing.

At this time my dad was living by the Castro Theater. He moved there to be close to where we were. We were in the Eureka district. I didn't see much of him. Around this time he opened a candy store by the El Rey Theater on Ocean Avenue. Mom got her license to work as a beautician.

I remember Ocean Avenue was fun. They used to have Halloween parades. The streets would close. We had pea shooters. It was like a straw with a mouthpiece, and you load it up with peas or beans and blow. Grandpa would have to rub the front window of the candy store with kerosene after the kids marked up the windows with soap. It was harmless, but it was extra work.

I got into a gang. I don't even know where we hung out. It was a park. Or corner lot. There was an opposing gang, too. We made guns, like slingshots. We had a piece of TNG, like the flooring that has a groove in the center. That was about 20 inches long. We put a bent nail and then we made a dart that was like an airplane without wings. It had a tail. In the front was the nail sticking out. And a clothespin on the handle. Take a piece of rubber tube. Cock it back. Put the bullet in the chaw, and then push the clothespin and pew! I have a vivid memory of shooting at a kid. Thank god I didn't hit him. I could've killed him.

I sold the Saturday Evening Post and Liberty magazine. I had a little bag. We'd go around the streets. I really didn't have any money. Whatever I made probably went to Mom. I would walk the streets, sell the papers, then come home. A lot of times Mom wasn't home. I'd go into the boarding house. No one took care of us. We were just there.

My mom finally got a job but it was in Oakland, so we moved to Oakland. I was in St. Francis de Sales Parish. I didn't fit into that Catholic school at all. They wore uniforms. My mom didn't have money. I probably didn't have a uniform. I felt like an outcast. This was probably 3rd or 4th grade. They had a recreation center and a priest was always there. I liked him very much. It was like a boys club. We'd play games, box, play.

I would take the Key System train that would go across the bridge and I'd go visit my dad. I couldn't have been more than 9. I would go and stay with Dad for a weekend or something and then there were times when my grandfather and my grandma Rosario --- my mom's mother and father --- lived on Freelon and 4th in San Francisco. I would get on the street car and I would get off at 4th and my grandfather would be right there waiting for me. I had to kiss him and he always had stubble. It was like sandpaper, but I always had to kiss him. Like scraping my face against sandpaper.

A train station
Key System terminal, San Francisco (Image credit: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
A train
Key System train (Image credit: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

They lived in a flat. My cousin Rosemary lived downstairs. We literally were best friends. We grew up together. We did a lot of things together. We read books. I spent a lot of time there when I was visiting Dad.

Next chapter: Middle school